Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

For what struck him was the terrible restlessness of the city, its desire to overthrow itself, to smash itself to bits and burst into new forms. The city was a fever-patient in a hospital, thrashing in its sleep, erupting in modern dreams. His own dream was to push the New Dressler beyond the limits of the old, to express in a single building what the city was expressing separately in its hotels and skyscrapers and department stores; and again he had the old dream-sense that friendly powers were leading him along, powers sympathetic to his deepest desires.

Steven Millhauser sets his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer in New York City as the 19th century turns into the 20th.  He portrays Martin Dressler, an entrpreneur and dreamer, from his boyhood job at his father’s cigar shop to his chain of restaurants to his set of high-rise hotels and then on to even bigger ideas. The concept of a businessman as both an artist and a creator fascinates me.

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As I read the novel, its title molded itself into different meanings in the same way that Martin’s buildings took on different shapes with different effects.

Not only does Millhauser use dreams in the sense of ideas, visions and “what could be” but he uses the concept of dreams in its more literal sense as dreams one might have while sleeping.  This takes Martin’s endeavors into a more surreal if not magical realm. I’ve found that giving his plots a little of the supernatural is not uncommon in Millhauser’s stories.

Also, Martin is not simply a dreamer who happens to be American. He is a dreamer of the American Dream. Much has been made in 20th century literature of the downside of the American Dream; however, Millhauser gives Martin Dressler’s dreams a more positive spin in which his successes are grand and his failures are a matter of “dreaming the wrong dream”. Martin comes to understand that dreams, especially American ones, and their fruition are meant to be transient and temporary. No American Dream lasts forever.

 

 

 

 

Pinckney Benedict: Mercy

Deal Me In – Week 48

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With all of it’s beauty, livestock and fences, a wintery rural West Virginia takes center stage in Pinckney Benedict’s short story “Mercy”. The fence provides an interesting parallel for the human divisions in the story. The father is a harsh, hard-working cattle farmer while his young son, just as hard-working, is a day-dreamer and a fence fixer.

The neighbor on the other side of the fence has bought miniature horses to be raised as pets which contrasts, at least to the father, with the cattle that is being raised for beef.  The idea of a pet horse is useless to the father even though he understands his son is interested in one:

When they had satisfied themselves, for the moment at least, the horses began to play. I searched among them until finally I found the sorrel. She was racing across our field, her hooves kicking up light clouds of ice crystals. She was moving more quickly than I had ever seen her go, but she wasn’t chasing another horse, and she wasn’t being chased. She was teasing the impassive angus steers, roaring up to them, stopping just short of their great bulk; turning on a dime and dashing away again…She yearned to charm them. She was almost dancing in the snow.

While the story never gets far enough for the reader to find out whether the son actually gets a pet horse, the story’s title gives a clue to the unexpected turn of events that occurs in the story’s final sentence. The way this plot twist works is a testament to a great story teller.  I’m going to want to read more of Benedict’s work.

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I read this story when I drew the Three of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. It’s included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Key

Deal Me In – Week 47

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Bessie Popkin in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “The Key” fits a certain stereotype – the paranoid Jewish New Yorker Woody Allen stereotype. But Bessie’s paranoia combines humor with the more realistic problem of living alone as an elderly widow who still mourns the death of her husband, Sam.

After a trip to the grocery store, Bessie breaks off her apartment key in the door and is unable to get inside. Not trusting the neighbors, she wanders around during the New York night finally settling on the doorway steps of a church:

The night did not pass without adventure. Once, Bessie saw a white butterfly in the air. It hovered for a while over a parked car and then took off. Bessie knew it was a soul of a newborn baby, since real butterflies do not fly after dark. Another time, she wakened to see a ball of fire, a kind of lit-up soap bubble, soar from one roof to another and sink behind it. She was aware that what she saw was the spirit of someone who had just died.

While Bessie’s transition during the night is a little naive, Singer makes it work.  Bessie looks up into the night sky, seeing the stars and moon, decides perhaps her life isn’t as bad as she makes it seem. Returning to the apartment, she realizes that her neighbors had been looking out for her.  I enjoyed the way Singer uses the neighbors to emphasize that they weren’t the ones that changed – it was Bessie.

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I read this story as I drew the Four of Hearts for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. It’s included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

Bradbury of the Month: November – R is for Rocket

There was this fence where we pressed our faces and felt the wind turn warm and held to the fence and forgot who we were or where we came from but dreamed of who we might be and where we might go…

Yet we were boys and liked being boys…

Ray Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket” has some of his usual themes – boys growing up and the excitement that comes with it, but in addition, the sadness of boyhood going away.

Bradbury always has a soft spot for summer and Saturdays. He has an understanding of what these mean (or meant) to children. I like that Bradbury doesn’t discount the importance of school room education but he readily affirms the idea that a type of education can also be found outside the classroom.

To reach for the stars, both figuratively and literally in Bradbury’s story, one has to move beyond summers and Saturdays but something is lost when one no longer has them.

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Alice Elliot Dark: In The Gloaming

Deal Me In – Week 46

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I’m not usually one for tear-jerkers, but when a story has real and well-developed characters in real situations and the raw emotion of Alice Elliot Dark’s story “In the Gloaming”, they can occasionally reel me in.

I can’t remember why I knew this; however, going in to the story, I already understood that the word “gloaming” means twilight or evening.  I didn’t know that it is a Scottish term but this story enlightened me on that.

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Janet and her adult son, Laird, start to have deep, personal conversations during the evening hours while her husband and Laird’s father retreats to his study to work.  Laird has a terminal illness and doesn’t take well to being “the victim”, but he sacrifices his bitterness to give his mother something by which to remember him – the gift of getting to know him in his final months. Not only do the conversations take place “in the gloaming” of the day, but they are taking place “in the gloaming” of Laird’s life.

I think an exceptionally memorable line from the story sums up a mother’s love for her son and in many cases any parent’s love for their children:

“He shouldn’t have had to return my love to me – it was his to squander.”

Laird’s father is mostly absent; however, he’s there in the house all the time – in his study. He may not have been the most likeable character in the story but in the end, his sobbing is real.

I read this when I drew the Seven of Diamonds in my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. It’s included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Ghost in the Mill

Deal Me In – Week 45

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Then the aged told their stories to the young, – tales of early life; tales of war and adventure, of forest-days, of Indian captivities and escapes, of bears and wild-cats and panthers, of rattlesnakes, of witches and wizards, and strange and wonderful dreams and appearances and providences.

I drew the Ten of Spades for Week 45 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project and read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Ghost in the Mill”.  It’s interesting that Week 45 falls right after Halloween. This story just missed ghost story season but I figure better late than never. It’s included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

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The plot of this story isn’t heavy or intricate. Sam Lawson tells two young boys a ghost story they’ve heard numerous times in the past. Sam pretends to be concerned about scaring them but the boys know he’ll tell it to them. He proceeds to tell a tale of a Native American woman who interrupts the imbibing of two men in a nearby mill to reveal the victim of a murder in the mill’s chimney.  That’s it; however, as with any good ghost story, it’s more about the way it’s told than the plot itself.

Published in 1872, “The Ghost in the Mill” came a little after the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne but the style and descriptions of the Massachusettes landscape remind me of Hawthorne’s stories.  I’m wondering if the story within the story is set earlier in the Nineteenth century or, who knows, maybe in the Eighteenth century. Something about the “New World” landscape of colonial America makes it perfect for stories of the supernatural and the scary. Maybe it’s because at the time, so much of it was unknown.

If “The Ghost in the Mill” is not the scariest ghost story I’ve read, it certainly is one of the most well-written.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

There are a handful of authors for which I will immediately seek out their newly published books.  Pulitzer-Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is one of them. When I got my notification from Goodreads that her new novel The Secret Chord would be released in October, I put it on reserve at my library and it was available for me the day it was released.

While I didn’t plan it this way, her novel happens to be the second novel that I’ve read in a row that could be classified as Biblical fiction. The Secret Chord covers the life of David from the Old Testament – from his time as a young boy to his ascension to the throne of Israel and on into his old age.

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Anyone who has ever read much of the Old Testament knows that it contains all kinds of blood and guts, murder, sex, betrayal, spying, intrigue and other things that are not always for the faint of heart – and Brooks has definitely done her Old Testament research. She manages to paint David in a light that perfectly blends his greatness and his flaws-his achievements as a poet, musician, king, warrior, shepherd boy and his exploits on the battlefield and in the bedroom are all combined into a spellbinding story.

She takes artistic license only enough to further develop characters that are not fully developed in the Biblical account; however, Brooks still makes it her own story.  I enjoyed the way it is told from the perspective of Nathan the Prophet – the only person who could get away with telling the King when he was wrong. Nathan’s prophecies come across a little like Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter books but Brooks manages to make them work without making them campy.

Instead of including a passage from the more gory sections of the book, I’ll include one that covers the artistic and musical impact that David has on his kingdom:

This is what he heard: All the musicians he had brought to the city. All the singing men and women. All the children who had grown up with instruments in their hands and songs on their lips. His own music. His gift to the people now returned to him in magnificent abundance. He had made of his city an accidental choir, an unintended orchestra. The surge of sound rose and swelled. Then, for a long moment, all the notes came together, all the music of the heavens and the earth, combining at last into one sustained, sublime, entirely glorious chord.

Here are my posts about Brooks’ other novels:

Year of Wonders

People of the Book

March

Caleb’s Crossing